Fighting COVID-19: How Gamification Can Reenergize Local Government and Help Save Small Businesses

The first COVID-19 related campaign that was designed to encourage local consumption was called “The Local Shoppers Challenge.” This one campaign generated $145,000 in local economic activity within just two weeks, at a time when COVID-19 was shutting down the economy. Colu launched this campaign in partnership with the Tel Aviv Foundation, which works to help disadvantaged communities in the city. The campaign features a digital punch card; when the card is used four times at local businesses for a transaction of at least NIS 20 (~US $6) each, residents are granted a one-time reward of 35 Tel Aviv coins (~US $10). This award is only offered to residents that complete the entire challenge (four qualifying transactions).

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An Invitation to Center Race in Government Responses to COVID-19

We are asking how to best move the long-term work of closing racial gaps in income and wealth through partnership with city governments, while acknowledging and affirming the immediate crisis that public servants are addressing. We are committed to our vision of a united, multi-sector movement for racial equity, while recognizing the importance of physical distancing and grieving the imminent losses our society is facing.

Living Cities is a convener and connector, and we will continue to show up for our communities during this difficult time. To that end, we are offering a set of opportunities for public servants to share and align around our responses to the moment and navigate the complexities together.

A Virtual Space for Public Servants to Connect

Over the past six months, our team has been laying the foundation for the Closing the Gaps Network, a new initiative that builds off the last decade of partnership between Living Cities and local governments across the country. The Closing the Gaps network will unite up to 30 cities to deepen their racial equity work–policies, practices, and processes–to close income and wealth gaps over the next decade. Starting April 1, we will host a series of three webinars that will convene city government employees with the following goals in mind:

  • Connect public servants to a supportive community of peers who are navigating a shared crisis

  • Ground public servants in a set of values that can inform a race-centered approach to crisis response that builds upon the work of Black, indigenous, and disabled organizers who have for many years been demanding the public services that we so desperately need in this moment

  • Introduce the Closing the Gaps Network as a potential space for public servants to build relationships within and across cities, deepen their racial equity work, and align around approaches for closing racial income and wealth gaps now and for many years to come.

We know that inequities exacerbate public health crises, and public health crises exacerbate inequities. The public sector has a unique role to play in disrupting inequities in order to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and other crises in the years to come. Join Living Cities and public sector peers on April 1, April 8, or May 5 to connect around the work at hand. More information about the webinars and the Closing the Gaps Network is available in the Resources section of our website and at the bottom of this blog.

A Set of Values to Guide Decision-Making

When we started building the Closing the Gaps Network in autumn 2019, our team developed a set of values that have guided all of our decision-making, including the difficult decisions we face in this time of pandemic. We are sharing the values and some reflection questions in the hopes they can do the same for you.

  • We honor the labor that got us here. What might it look like to honor the labor of Black, indigenous, disabled, and other marginalized folks who have been creating new ways of caring for each other, offering mutual aid, and discussing consent for many decades, now that we are all having to adopt these new ways of being in community?

  • We value working with an abundance mindset and an openness to possibilities. What might it look like to approach this moment with an abundance mindset, remembering that our resources are plenty even though they are hoarded by few? To stay grounded in a vision of healing and liberation, rather than fear and scarcity?

  • Racial equity is a process and an outcome. How might our crisis response plans change if we see this moment as part of the process of advancing racial equity?

  • We know that racial equity work is a day-to-day practice of shifting our behaviors and power. We are committed to anti-racist principles; antidotes to white institutional culture; accountability at all levels; working together in new, transformational ways; and continuous learning and improvement. How might the response to this pandemic look different if local government was working very differently around racial equity? How might this moment be used as an opportunity to begin practicing those new ways of working?

  • When we say community we name what we mean. Who is your community? How can you deepen, focus, and build the future you want together, through this crisis moment and beyond?

Resources to Ground an Equity-Based, Healing-Centered Response to COVID-19

We have been overwhelmed and inspired by the countless individuals and organizations who have shared reflections that can inform the way we show up in this moment. The list below is just a tiny snippet of the inspiring and healing resources being shared, but we hope they are a solid place to start.

  • Our friends at Race Forward wrote a statement calling for local and state governments to center communities of color in their responses to COVID-19. We are all only as safe as those members of our community who are most at risk.

  • The folks at Healing Justice produced a podcast and resource list on addressing the pandemic through a social justice lens.

  • Organizers at Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste uplifted an essay on “Organizing in a Time of Approaching Pandemic.”

  • The movement-building and storytelling platform Transformative Spaces posted a list of demands from grassroots organizers concerning COVID-19, acknowledging that some municipalities have already covered some of these bases. We share this in the spirit of highlighting expressed needs of communities and honoring the work that public servants are already doing.

  • Our partners at PolicyLink have called on federal leaders to take bold steps to ensure the safety of the public, particularly the most vulnerable among us. They also commend the swift actions that leaders in cities across the country are taking, “proving once again that local leaders are national leaders.”

  • In an essay by science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler, originally published in Essence magazine in 2000, Butler wrote, “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

There have been many, many more pieces written on the cyclical relationship between racial inequity and public health. We hope this moment offers space for all of us to pause, reflect, and act with intention. At Living Cities, we know that, for folks committed to public service, this is a time of great uncertainty and daunting challenges. We want you to know that we are here for you. Thank you for being part of our community.

Closing the Gaps Webinar Series


More information 

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Putting Entrepreneurs of Color in the Center: What Ecosystems and City Government Can Do

These cities are part of two initiatives – Start Up, Stay Up, Scale Up [SU(3)] and City Accelerator – that are designed to support local organizations and players to build more inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems, particularly for high-growth entrepreneurs of color and those looking to grow their businesses. The cities recognize the need to support Main Street businesses and startups owned by people of color. When we developed SU(3) and our City Accelerator on Local Business and Job Growth, we wanted to address the dearth of coordinated support and adequate services for entrepreneurs of color wishing to scale exponentially, and those who are growing locally. (Since then, Endeavor, Federal Reserve of Kansas City, Kauffman Foundation and others have released recommendations to support entrepreneurs of color.)

The cities didn’t have a blueprint to follow. But Living Cities was fortunate to engage two ecosystem-builders to coach them. Rod Miller and Monique Woodard have developed networks in U.S. cities that use the power of policy and partnerships and increased investment in entrepreneurs of color. They are sought after by entrepreneurial ecosystem players all over the world to exchange lessons and advise entrepreneur networks.

We recently reflected on their experiences coaching different ecosystem actors. Monique has been working with community foundations, economic development organizations, and venture capital investors. Rod has been collaborating primarily with local government staff. Despite the different levels of power and authority that these organizations and their staff possess, they all have acknowledged their roles as gatekeepers—to funds, to relationships, and to information—in their cities. They have worked on applying a racial equity lens to solutions that are based on direct connection with entrepreneurs of color. Based on these connections, the cities Rod and Monique are coaching have increased their awareness of the impact of structural racism on their entrepreneurs’ businesses. Several themes have emerged from this work that probably sound familiar to others working with and supporting entrepreneurs of color:

  • Being a majority of the population does not mean you get a majority of the receipts: Newark and New Orleans are investing in systemic interventions that will help Black founders and businesses participate in their city’s growth industries and get a larger share of the pie.

  • Cultural implications of raising capital and revenue in majority Latinx cities: Albuquerque and El Paso acknowledge that cultural values influence the growth ambitions of their local entrepreneurs and their capital needs by developing strategies that address the barriers that these entrepreneurs face in finding investors and getting contracts.

  • Robust ecosystems do not equal equitable ecosystems: While the creation of new firms and deal flows are constant, Atlanta and San Francisco must tackle the displacement of entrepreneurs of color that has come from more capital in their markets and the resulting rise in residential and commercial real estate costs.

  • Institutions are not always trusted service providers: Long Beach and Rochester are demonstrating how local government can apply a racial equity lens to economic development by investing in transformative partnerships with community-based organizations to better serve entrepreneurs of color.

With Monique and Rod’s expertise, the cities were able to re-evaluate some of their proposed solutions to addressing gaps in services and capital access. As Monique advises, “When you consider what can be fixed: assume the deficiency of the ecosystem, not the deficiency of the entrepreneur.”


While investing in capacity-building programs can be helpful, or focusing on networking and matchmaking events can help to catalyze relationships, these activities alone do not make an ecosystem. To dismantle the systems that exclude entrepreneurs of color from resources, local government, foundations, and anchor institutions must fix their own processes and policies.

For example, we far too often have seen government interventions perpetuate the narrative that communities of color are always low-income communities. Services to entrepreneurs of color are consequently seen as social service programs. As influencers in their ecosystem, city staff must interrogate their perceptions of entrepreneurs of color and take action to undo any negative effects their governments generate. Cities need to use their power. Identifying the role of the government in their ecosystem is the topic of Rod’s upcoming City Accelerator implementation guide for practitioners, Economic Revitalization through Diverse Business Growth: A How to Guide for Cities (working title). In it, Rod challenges cities to think about how often they put entrepreneurs of color in a box and address their issues from a social service or political lens. He has seen too many grants offered to entrepreneurs of color that require them to serve a certain market, locate in a particular neighborhood, or hire certain residents. These strings are not and have not been attached to all entrepreneurs seeking funds or resources from the city.

“Local government needs to change the culture of the way their city does business with entrepreneurs of color and ask themselves how they can engage them in an authentic way that provides those entrepreneurs with greater access to markets, capital, and partners,” Rod says.

This week, the Project on Municipal Innovation will meet, and I will be facilitating a conversation with Rod and Monique to engage mayoral chiefs of staff to consider how they can shape the culture of government to foster growth for businesses of color in coordination with other ecosystem actors. Later in October, Monique, T.D. Lowe and I will be speaking with impact investors on the SOCAP stage, offering them solutions to the challenges that high-growth entrepreneurs of color face.

Whether you are in local government, a business-serving organization, a funder of ecosystems, an investor, we encourage you to look for more strategies, lessons and inspiration from our inclusive ecosystem communities of practice on this site.

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MetroLab’s 10 Principles for Government + University Partnerships

For the past several years, there has been a buzz around “smart cities” and what these cities of the future actually are. In general, there seems to be a misconception that smart cities are all about hardware (like sensors) and data, but a true smart city is one that uses that hardware and data to ultimately focus on the needs of its people.

Using tools like algorithms and sensors, smart cities increase the quality of life for their residents, by making these communities cleaner, safer and healthier. When done thoughtfully smart cities efforts can also strive to make cities more inclusive and equitable. At the end of the day, it’s all about the people who live in these communities and making their interactions with city and/or county services easier and better.

Of course, local governments are constantly balancing the need to make resident experiences more positive with constrained budgets and human capital. There is a perception that in order to truly transform into a “smart city”, local officials need to adopt the latest and greatest technology all at once or not at all. This is not only infeasible but can deter officials from thinking through what can be done to make incremental changes to improve services, and by extension, resident experiences with their local government.

MetroLab Network, a local government and university collaborative for civic innovation, helps drive partnerships between local governments and universities. We are poised to help the public sector adapt to rapid technology change and we activate this network of stakeholders through convening, collaboration, and programming.

A large part of MetroLab’s ethos is that these partnerships between local governments and their university partners can be mutually beneficial: the university is the city’s R&D department and the city is the university’s test-bed.

By this we mean that faculty and students get access to real-life laboratories to test advanced approaches aimed at addressing city priorities and challenges while cities, and their residents, benefit from research that leverages digital and information technology, data analytics, sensing, and more.

Through MetroLab Network, we promote these relationships and their work and connect the activities underway across the country on what are often overlapping issues that might otherwise operate independently. A community of practice, MetroLab is committed to the idea of better partnerships for the research, development and deployment of smart city solutions to big local government challenges. MetroLab’s partnerships are leveraging scientific and technological change to drive progress in communities across the country.

For those communities interested in forming and formalizing their own partnerships, MetroLab espouses the following 10 Principles for Successful City/County + University Partnerships:

For Mayors, and University Presidents and Provosts:

  1. Embrace the idea of the city as a “living lab” and the university as a research & development resource
  2. Formalize a partnership between your city/county and university with a memorandum of understanding

For Cities and Counties:

3. Assign a lead point-of-contact at the city/county

4. Identify problems that need to be solved and opportunities for innovation;

For Universities:

5. Assign a lead point-of-contact at the university;

6. Form a multi-disciplinary network managed by the university point-of-contact;

Executing on Research, Development, and Deployment:

7. Find the intersection between city/county priorities and university expertise and identify metrics that will define success on these efforts;

8. Arrange regular, predictable, monthly meetings between the city/county and university points-of-contact;

9. Approach your local business and philanthropic community to support your RD&D efforts; and

10. Engage local community groups as partners.

Even armed with these ten principles, the most important thing to consider when creating these local partnerships is to think about how your unique partnership will take shape and what topic or topics the partnership would like to tackle and focus on as an initial jumping off point.

Amongst MetroLab members, we have partnerships that are focused around:

  • Institutionalizing consortiums of local universities
  • Engaging with strong civic tech communities
  • Formalizing collaborative projects to ensure longevity outside of a specific set of individuals
  • Growing existing partnerships that started based on singular issue and wanted to expand their scope
  • Onboarding neighboring governments and university partners who face similar issues in an effort to further expand benefits across a region
  • Expanding intergovernmental structures seeking to work in a more interdisciplinary format
  • Amplifying specific academic institutes that have applications to local issues

Whichever mechanism used to coalesce around an issue or set of issues, our takeaways for cities and universities that are beginning to think about more integrative and applied research approaches are these: invest in the process; respond to the city’s needs; and support faculty focused on developing actionable research for the city.

If you are interested in exploring topics and issues that university and local governments can help address, we recommend reading through our monthly Innovation of the Month series, in partnership with GovTech, that highlights the excellent work happening across the US.

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